The truth about “Offer Mills” (and other things no one is telling you about resolving tax debt).

If you are out driving at rush hour and listening to news or talk radio, you’re sure to be besieged by incessant commercials from various “tax relief” outfits, many fronted by well-spoken celebrity spokespeople  offering absolutely instant relief if you owe a taxing authority $10,000 or more. As you are dodging errant cars on the freeway or parkway, you are sure to here encouraging claims of  the benefits of an“offer in compromise” (“OIC”), or “you can wipe your debts away” for “pennies on the dollar”, or “the Fresh Start Program is for a limited time only”. After a lane change, you may even hear that “the IRS has been known to accept as little as 1% of the amount owed and give you a fresh start”.

Sound great? You may not have known that the IRS is as friendly a debtor as your Uncle Harold! FANTASTIC!

(If only it were true).

As the old commercial said, If you like peanut butter, you’ll LOVE Skippy.  With glittering voices ringing out with stellar claims of tax settlements of pennies on the dollar, the awful truth is that less than one-quarter of compromise applications are ever accepted. Truth be told further, offer applications are almostnever fully accepted if the applicant has any liquid or marketable assets whatsoever, regardless of what the Regulations and the Internal Revenue Manual state, as settlement officers are given “discretion” (read: they can do whatever they darn well please), to settle any matter on their own terms. Moreover, most of the commercials barking through your car radio are generated from lead-generation firms that collect client information and sell it to a tax debt relief firm for up to $500 per lead!  Others use the OIC program to grab attention and then direct a taxpayer into a program he or she actually qualifies for, (such as an installment agreement plan), that he or she could easily arrange, without any help whatsoever.

Of course, one cannot be entirely certain if all of the carnival barkers on radio and television are selling false hope and snake oil, but its been more than certain that a number of them have been. Names like “The Tax Lady” Ronnie Lynn Deutsch, Tax Masters, and J.K. Harris in the “Offer Mill” business litter the landscape and have bilked thousands out of millions, with little to no results. My experience with most of these outfits (drawn from my clients who have fled from them) is the first prerequisite in dealing with such an Offer Mill is a large upfront retainer payment (usually in excess of $5,000) is required. With that large chunk of change, the Offer Mill usually puts together a flimsy offer document that by statute and by rule operates to delay tax collection for the better part of one year, until the IRS examiner laughs the document out of the park. The poor client thinks all is wonderful during this initial “quiet period”, until the rejection letter comes back with appeal rights. At that point, the Mill asks for another $5,000, “to go forward”, (more than likely, this type of “going forward” is equivalent to walking out onto the freeway at rush hour).

What is also a matter of great suspicion are the “credentials” of the people actually working these Mills. Most of the Mills have really slick websites featuring people of ostensibly formidable credentials who will go to bat on this matter, all for you.  What taxpayers are NOT told is that the majority of folks involved in this business have no credentials, are bound by no regulations, and are simply churning completed applications out like an assembly line, (thus this type of practice earn the well-deserved name, of “Offer Mill”). Truth be told again, ANY filed offer application (no matter HOW deficient), will stop tax collection, for at least a time.

Now, one of the things that the scammers and Mills will not tell you is that if you have any saleable assets at all during the time of your application, the taxing authorities will place a lien upon them in order to carry out their true mission (which regardless of what you may have been told, kids, is to “protect the revenue”). Once a lien is filed and becomes a matter of public record, a taxpayer is sure to be assaulted by numerous calls and mailed notices offering such dubious offers of “tax relief”. Many of these notices are so carefully crafted, they appear as if they are coming from the taxing agencies themselves, right down to the color of the paper and the typeface, featuring disclaimers so small you need a magnifying glass to see them. (Let me tell you, these “notices” are GOOD…one even faked out my associate the other day!) Also many of the “per-commission” callers calling to solicit business for these shams are often so incoherent, you will win on the odds of their not being able to find their way to order a hamburger at McDonald’s.  One thing is for certain: as economies worsen and debtors increase, this type of evil tax seduction is sure to wax worse and worse.

Now, you might be asking yourself as to why this “industry” is not better regulated on a number of fronts, especially in the realm of consumer protection. Believe me, I have asked myself the same question. Recently, I showed samples of these “tax relief” notices to a horrified Congressional aide in my state. She was absolutely shocked, and referred it to her congressman. But truly, what are the chances of one congressman advancing an “anti-Mill” bill through the House and the Senate and getting universal approval for it? Such a bill would have to advance over cries of “job creation” and “consumer rights” and “free enterprise”, and hoards of slimy lobbies and bought-off legislators. Frankly in my estimation, the chances of any real reform happening in this area are really, not good.

However, all of this leaves the poor tax debtor with a troubling question: If I need competent professional assistance to help me with my tax debt, where do I go? If its me, I would stay entirely away from the outfits that are barking their siren song to you on the car radio, just because the odds are not in your favor of finding a reputable, honest and knowledgeable soul to work with in that part of the universe. In my estimation, the best thing one can do is to interview severallicensed practitioners and to cross-compare the information received. Quickly, a realistic assessment of your situation and a commonality will be ascertainable. Further, I would absolutely run from any one or any thing asking for large amounts of money upfront. A reputable person knows that there are no quick-fixes here, and that there will be a long relationship between you and he, so a payment plan could be easily worked out.

Finally, if one hears anything other than the fact that an OIC is anything but a long, arduous, painful, and difficult process (with less than a 25% chance of success), they are being lied to. As my seventh-grade English teacher would say, “it is simple as that, kids. and just as difficult”. Even so, the tool of the offer in the right hands of a skilled practitioner can go a long way in settling mounds of substantial tax debt.

In closing, if you have any further questions about the IRS Offer program, please do not hesitate to contact me.

IN SEARCH OF…Professional Quality and Integrity

Given my age and status as a member of the great Baby-Boom generation, I am often thought of by my younger colleagues and friends as automatically being a fan of the original “Star-Trek” TV show. When I mention to them that I may have seen one Star-Trek episode in my life, they look at me as oddly as my 20-year old show producer did, thinking everyone in my generation passionately followed the show. I was just never a fan.

But, I was a fan of the late, great actor Leonard Nimoy. He really was a great deal more versatile than just his “Spock” role on Star-Trek. A number of years back, he hosted a TV show called “In Search Of”, where he would be off on an expedition hoping to find information or artifacts related to some rare or unclear item in history.

Driving out from New Haven one night, I was listening to a radio talk show out of New York where the host was commenting on all of the alleged recent breaches in trust and ethics taking place in city government, some of which are chilling…even by New York standards. I began to shake my head, wondering to myself that if Mr. Nimoy was to do an “In Search Of” show concerning ethics and responsibility in New York government, would he be able to find any? Subsequently, I could not help in thinking how strong the parallels are between situations such as this, and that of any professional-client relationship.

In over thirty-five years of practice, I have been asked to do a number of tasks by folks that, (in the words of the great Muhammad Ali), would shock and amaze you, since these tasks went far beyond that of the standard fare of my professional employment. I had always wondered why this was the case.  After pondering this one evening, it dawned on me that these occurrences were based upon the biblical premise of those who are faithful in the least, are faithful in the most. The act of being faithful towards another by its own definition implies putting the interests of another ahead of one’s own. When a good practitioner or professional works to protect and effectuate tasks and wishes on behalf of a client, he or she is trusted more with more things in more ways than could ever be imagined. (Of course, the flip side is if one in a position of fiduciary counsel and trust violates those premises, the opposite effect is bound to occur.)

Over the course of time, I have had visits and calls from prospective clients who have indicated their dissatisfaction with their present adviser. When I ask them why, the answers normally fall somewhere within the following general categories:

“He never listens to me”.

“I’m tired of seeing her (vacation/conference/family event) pictures on Facebook, but she keeps dropping the ball when I ask for her to do something for me”.

“I really don’t know what I have been paying for.”

“He’s into his bigger clients. He never has time for me.”

“Did you see that (car/house/watch/ring?)  Guess how she’s paying for it!”

“Its’ great that her daughter was admitted to (the college of her choice), but how does that help me with my messes?”

In all of the above complaints, you will notice a common thread. Each and every comment references a person who gives the clear perception of being their own highest priority at the ostensible expense of their client, regardless of what their personal intentions may be. It is interesting that a blanket statement of “Susie is just too expensive” is rarely heard, as good clients will pay good money for equivalent or greater value.  But yes, dear readers, there are those people out there who are just into low-balling prices and are not sensitive or do not care about quality, and if it is me, I usually send those folks on their way so they can meet up with like-minded souls who can meet their need, (and more often than not, help get them into trouble).

So what does all of this practitioner-client stuff have to do with the global failures of integrity mentioned in the first paragraph of this article? (Glad you asked!) Kindly ask yourself these questions. Why didn’t General Motors listen to whistle-blowers fourteen years ago when warned of grave quality issues concerning their vehicles? Why didn’t the U.S. State Department react more acutely and proactively to the horrors that occurred in Benghazi? Why didn’t the IRS immediately dismiss those adjudicating charitable exemptions who were acting upon reasons other than those based on the Internal Revenue Manual and regulations? The answer is simple: A correction in each of the above instances would have necessitated (inter-alia) an act of contrition, an admission of guilt, a huge change in approaches, and an act of accountability resulting in a HUGE financial loss, with the removal (and well-deserved prosecution in some cases) of the functional people involved. But the key objective of any cover up going as far back to Watergate (or maybe, any cover up going as far back as Adam and Eve) is simple: protect the position, authority, profit, and property of the people involved, (period), all else be damned. For after all, we come first!

Whenever there is an act of public malfeasance where one in authority abuses power, outrage usually follows. But what is the root cause of that outrage? Its’ founded on a simple determination perhaps reiterated by some GM car owners with the realization that “these people don’t care a thing about me”.  (Sounds an awful lot like our aggrieved clients said above, who really are concerned about if anyone at all, in fact, is watching their backs.)

I spent a large part of my growing up in Stamford, CT in theaters, where my Dad worked a movie projectionist. In this connection, I have many memories of motion pictures that were great (and not so great, as my long-suffering wife Kathy will attest to). But of the great films, one often stays in mind, and I have been in love with it from the day that I first saw it in the theater in 1967. This film, “The Dirty Dozen” is really based on a very simple premise.  A U.S. Army Major in World War II with a checkered track record (played by Lee Marvin) is assigned a dozen convicted murderers to train and lead them into a mass assassination mission of German officers, that for all intents and purposes is a fatal one. The murderers are given a carrot: if they survive, they will be freed from death row and return to active duty where, they will probably be killed anyway. (As you can see, its not an uplifting set of facts we are presented with).

Now, the cast of murderers (portrayed by some of the greatest actors that have ever lived, such as Telly Savalas, John Cassavettes and Charles Bronson) start off on this charade thinking that it really makes no difference whatsoever as to if they succeed or fail, because they’re dead, no matter what. However, as time goes on, they realize that the Major shows great integrity, and has invested himself so much into this mission that he routinely casts aside his own well-being for their own, so much to the point where they raise their own self-worth, and then begin to look out for the welfare of each other.

To make this better, writer Nunnally Johnson builds in a character contrast of another Army officer, the Major’s superior Col. Everett Dasher Breed (so terrifically portrayed by Robert Ryan). Now, Col. Breed is the exact opposite of the Major, a West Point elitist of low character and zero integrity who is spit and polish, controlling and manipulating, and most importantly one who is continually reflecting the sole objective of protecting his own turf and appearances. Towards the end of the movie, as push comes to shove (and later, to shot), we all come to know his pitiful true value.

Needless to say, we’ve all had (or have) supervisors and managers like Col. Breed. You can see them coming a mile away, as they show such a lack of integrity, shallowness and substance, you can see right through them. Parenthetically, I have found over time that clients view practitioners using the same set of X-Ray eyeglasses.  And in using those spectacles, what do they see? In comparison to the movie, do they feel like they are working with the Major, or the Colonel? Do they perceive us as serving them (or, the other way around) I do realize that this is heavy premise, but it is one that is nonetheless true.

For all of us in practice, I would suggest that the newness of the Spring may be a good time to look in the mirror, and ask ourselves: Why are we here?  And who do we serve? Each and every one of us has a major trust placed in us.

Please accept my best wishes for a great June.

 

Tony De Angelo

Tony’s Tax Tips

IRS Urges Public to Stay Alert for Scam Phone Calls

The IRS continues to warn consumers to guard against scam phone calls from thieves intent on stealing their money or their identity. Criminals pose as the IRS to trick victims out of their money or personal information. Here are several tips to help you avoid being a victim of these scams:

  • Scammers make unsolicited calls.  Thieves call taxpayers claiming to be IRS officials. They demand that the victim pay a bogus tax bill. They con the victim into sending cash, usually through a prepaid debit card or wire transfer. They may also leave “urgent” callback requests through phone “robo-calls,” or via phishing email.
  • Callers try to scare their victims.  Many phone scams use threats to intimidate and bully a victim into paying. They may even threaten to arrest, deport or revoke the license of their victim if they don’t get the money.
  • Scams use caller ID spoofing.  Scammers often alter caller ID to make it look like the IRS or another agency is calling. The callers use IRS titles and fake badge numbers to appear legitimate. They may use the victim’s name, address and other personal information to make the call sound official.
  • Cons try new tricks all the time.  Some schemes provide an actual IRS address where they tell the victim to mail a receipt for the payment they make. Others use emails that contain a fake IRS document with a phone number or an email address for a reply. These scams often use official IRS letterhead in emails or regular mail that they send to their victims. They try these ploys to make the ruse look official.
  • Scams cost victims over $23 million.  The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, or TIGTA, has received reports of about 736,000 scam contacts since October 2013. Nearly 4,550 victims have collectively paid over $23 million as a result of the scam.

The IRS will not:

  • Call you to demand immediate payment. The IRS will not call you if you owe taxes without first sending you a bill in the mail.
  • Demand that you pay taxes and not allow you to question or appeal the amount you owe.
  • Require that you pay your taxes a certain way. For instance, require that you pay with a prepaid debit card.
  • Ask for your credit or debit card numbers over the phone.
  • Threaten to bring in police or other agencies to arrest you for not paying.

If you don’t owe taxes, or have no reason to think that you do:

  • Do not give out any information. Hang up immediately.
  • Contact TIGTA to report the call. Use their “IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting” web page. You can also call 800-366-4484.
  • Report it to the Federal Trade Commission. Use the “FTC Complaint Assistant” on FTC.gov. Please add “IRS Telephone Scam” in the notes.

If you know you owe, or think you may owe tax:

  • Call the IRS at 800-829-1040. IRS workers can help you.

Phone scams first tried to sting older people, new immigrants to the U.S. and those who speak English as a second language. Now the crooks try to swindle just about anyone. And they’ve ripped-off people in every state in the nation.

Stay alert to scams that use the IRS as a lure. Tax scams can happen any time of year, not just at tax time. For more, visit “Tax Scams and Consumer Alerts” on IRS.gov.

Each and every taxpayer has a set of fundamental rights they should be aware of when dealing with the IRS. These are your Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Explore your rights and our obligations to protect them on IRS.gov.

Tony’s Tax Tips

Year End Charitable Giving 

I have maintained for years that your best and least expensive means of saving meaningful tax dollars is by contributing property to a qualifying charitable organization.

RIA tells us that In IR-2015-134, the IRS has reminded taxpayers making year-end charitable contributions to keep in mind that donated clothing and household items must be in good or better used condition; monetary donations must be substantiated by a bank record or written statement; donations worth $250 or more must be substantiated by a written acknowledgement that includes, among other things, a description of the items contributed; and special rules apply to donations of cars, boats and airplanes. Furthermore, only donations to qualified and bona-fide organizations are tax-deductible.
If you have any questions about making year-end charitable contributions, do not hesitate to contact us.

Tony’s Tax Tips

The Advantages of Using a Licensed Professional for your Tax Matters

In a recent news release, the IRS reminds us of the difficulty involved in working with an unlicensed tax preparer, should that preparer need to represent you before the IRS.

By way of explanation, in June of 2014, IRS announced a voluntary education program, the Annual Filing Season Program (AFSP), for unenrolled return preparers and others that would go into effect for the upcoming filing season. Completion of the program allows these preparers very limited rights to represent taxpayers. However, these rights are not broad in scope, nor are they allowed at every level of IRS jurisdiction.

Conversely, IRS also notes in the news release that there are no changes to the representation rules and powers for EAs, CPAs, and attorneys. These tax professionals continue to have unlimited practice rights and can represent any taxpayer before any IRS office, including collection and appeals, regardless of whether they prepared the tax return in question. Choosing such a professional usually puts a taxpayer at a great advantage rather than the choice of someone who works seasonally, and is unenrolled.

Tony’s Tax Tips

Buying a Home (The Real Story)

Usually, many people consider if the purchase of a home is a good idea.

The Housing collapse of 2008-2009 is still being felt by many communities today, as a glut of homes remain available for sale at seemingly bargain prices. Further, the spotty real estate market has driven up the cost of rents. Most troubling for the market is the scarcity of younger potential “entry-level” buyers who are either beset by excessive personal debt, or do not want the financial and time commitments to home ownership. Losing this lower rung of the market has created a reverse domino effect to the same.

Many times, younger buyers are presented with a seemingly simple analysis reflecting that one could “own” property more inexpensively compared to by paying rent. The added tax benefit of mortgage interest and property taxes are factored in. However what is never discussed are the costs of maintenance, upkeep and mechanicals, trash removal, insurance, mortgage insurance, and (gulp!), capital improvements such as siding and fencing.  Plus, there are “time vs. money” decisions as to who will mow the lawn and shovel the snow? All of that needs to be considered.

Two axioms also come into play with respect to home ownership. One is the “law of price appreciation,” which was almost a given years ago. Many buyers chased one piece of property, thus driving sale prices up. Now, with fewer buyers in the marketplace, the “buy window theory of life” comes in to play. This is a time-honored rule telling us that the value of a given item is determined by what it can be purchased for on that particular day i.e., its value at the “buy window.” If one cannot sell a given house in a 24-hour period for any given price, guess what that object is worth?

As you can see, buying real property is a complex decision involving many factors. If you have any questions about the same, feel free to contact us.